‘We are sitting on a time bomb’: Pressure mounts for respirator masks to protect doctors

It’s a workplace uniform which has scared little children, but for Perth doctor Sean Stevens the alternative to not wearing it is far more terrifying.

The GP says a respirator mask and face shield are essential personal protective equipment, or PPE, for healthcare workers like himself, who are seeing patients who have potentially contracted COVID-19.

“We’ve seen with our colleagues in Melbourne — there’s two GPs, at this very moment in ICU, with COVID infection that it appears was caught at work,” Dr Stevens said.

Dr Stevens dons his PPE
Dr Sean Stevens dons PPE to treat patients at the clinic.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

In Victoria, more than 1,100 healthcare workers have been infected with COVID-19, including some who feared they were not protected with the PPE they needed.

Specialist clinics prepare to shoulder the burden

Dr Stevens — like many healthcare workers around the country watching on as the Victorian health system deals with its current coronavirus outbreak — is hoping that his state is prepared for a similar situation.

This includes adequate supplies of PPE — the gloves, gowns, hair and foot nets, respirator masks (known as N95s) and shields which he wears to see patients at his respiratory clinic in Victoria Park.

His clinic is one of about 100 nationally, established with the help of the Federal Government to treat patients with respiratory symptoms, and to help conserve stocks of PPE.

Dr Stevens prepares his N95 mask.
Dr Stevens wears a N95 mask at the respiratory clinic in Perth.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

It can also be quickly scaled up to treat and test triple the number of current patients if there’s a coronavirus outbreak.

Patients can self-refer or be sent to the clinic by their GPs, who can find themselves churning through multiple sets of PPE in a day when dealing with the coughing, sneezing and spluttering symptoms of respiratory patients.

“We’re able to see patients all in a row, so that we only need to use one set of PPE to see 18 patients instead of 18 different GPs using 18 different sets of PPE,” Dr Stevens said.

“So it preserves the very important and scarce PPE that’s available.”

Health professionals fear ‘time bomb’ is ticking

While WA has reported no active community transmission of the coronavirus, there is increasing anxiety among health professionals that it will make its way into the state via overseas or interstate travellers.

“I think I can best summarise the mood of doctors in Western Australia at the moment as we are sitting on a time bomb,” the Australian Medical Association’s WA president, Andrew Miller, said.

Dr Miller is particularly alarmed at how the impact of the Victorian outbreak has depleted the healthcare workforce — including those in aged care — at such a crucial time.

He is increasing his pressure on the WA Government to supply all frontline healthcare workers with N95 masks, saying they provide more protection than surgical masks.

“A Level 3 surgical mask is designed to protect you from splashing and you suck a lot of air around the side of them,” he said.

“A respirator mask means you suck the air through the mask so it is properly filtered.”

Agency ‘watching and learning’ as it prepares to ramp up

Behind the scenes, Health Support Services — the WA Government agency responsible for sourcing, supplying and procuring PPE for public hospitals — says it has been watching and learning from Victoria’s experience.

Its chief procurement officer, Mark Thompson, says it has led them to adjust their clinical model for PPE supplies, which was originally developed to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases.

It has sharpened its focus on certain products because of the Victorian outbreak.

Mark Thompson standing in front of hundreds of boxes containing PPE.
Mark Thompson oversees WA’s stockpile of PPE supplies.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“Masks, gowns, gloves, testing kits. They’re all the things we’re looking at in the clinical modelling and buying the volume of supply to that clinical modelling,” Mr Thompson said.

Yesterday, a fresh delivery of 2.5 million gloves and 80,000 gowns arrived.

Mr Thompson said WA’s current stocks of PPE would last for between 40 and 60 weeks at current usage, allowing for disruptions in supply chains.

Six different suppliers of N95 masks have been secured, partly as a back-up plan in case one supply chain breaks down.

Boxes containing N95 masks.
The WA Government has a stockpile of N95 masks.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

It’s also crucial that the masks fit many different face shapes correctly, in order to be effective.

Mr Thompson said they had one million N95 masks, but if guidelines changed they could ramp up those stocks.

“We’ve got future orders with suppliers which will significantly increase the number of N95s that we’re going to be holding shortly,” he said.

Rows of boxes of stockpiled PPE.
The WA Government’s stockpile of PPE.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Mr Thompson’s agency plays a crucial, behind-the-scenes role in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, competing with other Australian states and other countries to source important supplies around the world.

In pre-COVID-19 days, it had one warehouse holding $7 million worth of stock, but today that has expanded to six warehouses with $37 million worth of stock, including one facility just for PPE.

But Dr Miller said a stockpile meant little if healthcare workers were being exposed to COVID-19.